Board of Supervisors approves limited kennel expansion
In front of a packed County chambers on Feb. 4, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a limited expansion of The Meadows Kennel, the doggy daycare facility just west of Oakmont Dr. on Sonoma Hwy.
After almost two hours of impassioned public comment – both in support of and in opposition to the kennel’s plans – the Board of Supervisors voted to allow the expansion of the kennel, with some restrictions.
The former proposal, approved by the Sonoma County Board of Zoning Adjustments (BZA) last year, called for the expansion of the kennel from its current 10-dog maximum to a total of 35 dogs (including daycare and overnight boarding) over a two-phase process. Phase one allowed up to 20 dogs (eight for daycare and 12 for boarding). After one year, there would have been an operational review by the BZA. If the review was favorable, then the kennel would have been able to bump the operations up to 35 dogs (10 for daycare and 25 for boarding), construct a new 1,496-square-foot kennel building, and incorporate grooming into its list of services. That proposal was appealed to the Board of Supervisors by a coalition of opponents.
“I am very uncomfortable with the scenario approved by the Board of Zoning Adjustments; 35 dogs is just too many,” said Supervisor Susan Gorin, after listening to more than 30 public comments.
Under the direction of Supervisor Gorin, the Board gave tentative approval for phase one of the two-phase project approved by the BZA. The board will give final approval in March.
The kennel’s capacity will be allowed to expand from 10 to 20 dogs, and to include overnight boarding. A maximum of 10 dogs are to be allowed outside at one time. Grooming services and Saturday group training classes will also be allowed under phase one, instead of being part of phase two. The kennel will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. All boarded dogs would remain inside from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. A mandatory review and hearing before the BZA will be required in one year.
“One thing is really clear; we love our dogs,” said Gorin. “Another thing is very clear; this issue is divisive.”
The Meadows Kennel, situated on three acres at the corner of Sonoma Hwy. and Richards Road, has been a point of strong contention between neighbors on Richards Road and also within the Oakmont community. Owner Heidi Niemann began operating the property as a 10-dog daycare in 2011, but her proposal to ultimately expand to a kennel with space for 50 dogs alarmed the neighbors. BZA heard the item in 2012, ordering more study on noise and traffic concerns, and the proposal was scaled back to a 35-dog capacity.
During the Feb. 4 meeting, critics of the project, many of whom had also been vocal at the BZA hearing, cited a list of issues, with traffic dangers on an increasingly busy Sonoma Hwy. and the potential noise generated by barking dogs at the top of that list.
Other neighbors in opposition said they felt they had been duped by Niemann, who had not been transparent enough about her expansion plans when she first filed for permits. “Within a neighborhood, there should be a certain amount of cooperation. Heidi should have been forthright,” neighbor Tom Badger told the commission.
Supporters also spoke on Niemann’s behalf, praising her character, her professionalism, the design of her kennel to mitigate noise concerns, and pointing out that the kennel provides a much needed service in Sonoma Valley, especially for those in Oakmont with medical conditions who may need a place to board a pet in an emergency situation.
Some pointed out that Niemann requires customers to sign a “right turn only contract” to avoid traffic dangers when turning into or leaving Richards Road. However, the Supervisors confirmed that it was more a good-will contract than something enforceable by California Highway Patrol (CHP).
When Niemann got her chance to speak, she expressed shock and dismay at the amount of criticism that has come her way because of her proposal to expand. “I’m sorry the neighbors are so upset. I wish I could have mediated this,” she said. Niemann noted that this newspaper had been reporting her plans since she first filed for permits in 2011. “If you have anything you want to say, I’m not that far away.”
Gorin said the decision hoped to reach a compromise between the original proposal approved by the BZA and opponents’ desires to block the project altogether.
The Board also commented that the contention over this project brought to light larger issues that needed to be addressed in their own right.
“It seems like the traffic problem is already there,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “Instead of focusing on how much traffic this project will add, maybe there should be focus on fixing the problem.”
Supervisor Shirlee Zane also called that stretch of Sonoma Hwy. “treacherous.” Many of the opponents present at the hearing had been victims of car accidents at the Roberts Road and Sonoma Hwy. intersection themselves. CHP accident statistics show rates for that section of Sonoma Hwy. are lower than for similar roads in California, but when questioned by Zane at the meeting, County staff confirmed that they do not have exact data on how many accidents occur in that area because of drivers turning left into Richards Road.
“My hope is that through this, Supervisor Gorin can open up a dialogue with CalTrans to have a traffic study done there,” said Zane.
As for the other issues, Zane said the burden fell on Niemann to “not just be a good neighbor, but to be a great neighbor.”
“If there is barking, we need to work really hard to isolate where the sound is coming from, document it, and take action,” said Gorin. A “hobby kennel” and breeding facility further up Richards Road, plus numerous dogs sprinkled throughout the Oakmont community could make pinpointing the source of annoying barking difficult. However, County staff recommended that reports of barking coming from the “hobby kennel” or other residences should be directed to Animal Control (565-7100), while reports of barking originating from The Meadows Kennel should be directed to Permit Resource Management Division (565-1900).
Sarah Phelps is an editor and reporter. She was raised in Kenwood and has a BA from Loyola Marymount University.